Frugal simplicity: minimalistic but powerful Carmélites at Grange Park

Poulenc: Dialogues des Carmélites ****

Grange Park Opera, 6th July 2013

The last time I was at Tre Scalini, in Rome’s Piazza Navona, it was a brief visit, merely to scoff down some Tartufo and scribble a postcard or two. Francis Poulenc, on the other hand, spent hours there, reading Dia­logues des Car­mélites by George Bernanos, a subject suggested by Guido Val­carenghi, director of Ricordi, for a La Scala commission. “I bought the book and decided to reread it,” he later wrote. “For that, I sat down at the out­doors café Tre Scalini on the Piazza Navona. It was ten in the morn­ing. At noon I was still there, hav­ing con­sumed a cof­fee, an ice cream, an orange juice, and a bot­tle of Fuggi min­eral water to jus­tify my pro­longed pres­ence. At twelve-thirty I was drunk with enthu­si­asm.” Inspiration had clearly struck.

Dialogues des Carmélites
© Robert Workman

The resulting opera, however, caused Poulenc much anguish. During its composition, he suffered a nervous breakdown said (by Pierre Bernac) to be induced by the composer’s identification with the nuns’ suffering. Watching the opera is little easier. There are telling moments where dramatic truths hit home – the single dissenting vote on whether the nuns take a vow of martyrdom, prioress Madame de Croissy’s terror in death, the Carmélites fate at the guillotine; in John Doyle’s excellent production for Grange Park Opera, each of these key moments registers like a blow to the pit of the stomach.

Doyle, like Poulenc’s nuns, opts for frugal simplicity. Liz Ascroft’s single set features white plastered walls, with a narrow passageway to the right. Bisecting this was a thin fissure which, when strongly lit (Paul Keogan), shot a piercing beam of light across the stage. Projections depicted windows or jail-bars, while cropped silhouettes of a crucifix hinted at the monastic setting. The opera is composed of twelve scenes with orchestral interludes, yet the staging allowed the music to flow uninterrupted (other than the single interval, placed midway through Act II). During each interlude, the cast reset the scene through the simplest of means – chairs, a plank of wood and a few candles manipulated skilfully to create each scene – and the sense of calm ritual with which the scene changes were managed beautifully, so that momentum never faltered.

There were two sides to ‘Janus-Poulenc’, as he referred to himself; the clown – witty and sardonic – and the melancholy. Poulenc himself experienced a dramatic religious conversion when he made a pilgrimage to the shrine of the Black Madonna at Rocamadour, following the sudden death of a close friend in a road accident. This experience had a profound effect on him and his religious fervour influenced some of his music thereafter. The score of Dialogues des Carmélites is deftly painted, with the most beautiful music reserved for the nuns’ religious services, although it never descends into mawkish sentimentality. The orchestration is often light, allowing the text to register, but there are moments of great power and harmonic pungency which are unmistakably Poulenc.

Dialogues des Carmélites
© Robert Workman

Bernanos’ screenplay was based on the 1931 novella Die Letzte am Schafott by Gertrud von Le Fort, itself based on the memoirs of Marie de l’Incarnation, a nun at Compiègne at the time of the French Revolution – Mother Marie of the opera. It tells the story, based on true events, of an order of nuns who in 1794 faced the guillotine rather than renounce their religious vows. The opera focuses on the Order’s newest member, Blanche de la Force, the only fictitious character in the cast, but is less an account of the religious suppression during the French Revolution than an exploration of faith. As Robespierre’s reign of terror grips France, Blanche decides to join the religious order of nuns. After they are expelled by the revolutionaries, and take a vow of martyrdom, Blanche runs away, only to return to join the others in facing their deaths, singing the Salve Regina on the way to the scaffold. This emotional struggle is at the heart of the work and which touches the hearts of its audiences.

Dialogues is aptly titled – it’s a wordy libretto – and Poulenc specified that it should be performed in the language of the audience; hence, the première at La Scala in January 1957 was in Italian. Grange Park Opera, however, has chosen to perform it in French, as does the Royal Opera next season. Some of the French on display was less than pristine, but there were enough notable exceptions to overlook this directorial decision.

Hye-Youn Lee (Blanche) and Soraya Mafi (Constance)
© Robert Workman

The central performances were largely excellent. Tenor Nicky Spence was in ringing voice as Blanche’s brother, the Chevalier de la Force; every word registered and he clearly conveyed his dilemma when visiting Blanche to persuade her to escape. Anne-Marie Owens was a towering Madame de Croissy, her hefty contralto superbly focused while she acted out the terror of her death most movingly. Fiona Murphy as Madame Lidoine, the new prioress, was in great voice; sensitive phrasing and purity of line a real asset to the scene where she declares she’ll join her nuns in their vow of martyrdom. Sara Fulgoni, a Grange Park regular, was as dependable a Marie as she was Suzuki last season. Stealing the show, however, was the Sœur Constance of Soraya Mafi, possessor of a bright, engaging soprano. Constance is the youngest member of the order, pure and innocent, but with a bubbly personality which she has difficulty suppressing. It’s no surprise that Poulenc admitted to falling in love with the character as he composed his opera. Young Mafi is clearly one to watch.

The only slight disappointment surrounded the casting of Blanche herself. Hye-Youn Lee didn’t always convey Blanche’s conflicting emotions that well and her soprano, although good at depicting fragility, was sometimes harsh at the top of her range and was occasionally overpowered by the orchestra. Matthew Stiff handled the warm vocal lines Poulenc sets him in the opening scene well and Nigel Robson convinced as the Chaplain. Of the other nuns, Kathleen Wilkinson stood out as a sympathetic Mère Jeanne, but all blended superbly in Poulenc’s choral writing.

Hye-Youn Lee (Blanche)
© Robert Workman

The English Chamber Orchestra was in suitably Gallic form under conductor Stephen Barlow, creating a big, vibrant sound, woodwinds in particular delighting in the solo opportunities Poulenc throws their way. Barlow’s pacing was exemplary and he drew some lively string playing from his orchestra. I was impressed with the way the guillotine effects were undertaken. A convert to Kent Nagano’s recording, with its chilling sound effects, I feared something more along the lines of Paul Daniel’s ENO recording for Chandos – a puny downward glissando on xylophone. I needn’t have worried, for what was served up sounded heavy and metallic, however it was achieved. This moment was also beautifully staged.

An enthusiastic hurrah too for Grange Park’s Meteor scheme, which offers tickets for selected dates for just £30 if you’re under 35 years of age. It was refreshing to see so many young people who aren’t regular opera-goers enjoying a night at the opera. As Wasfi Kani said in her welcome, they are opera’s future.

This review originally appeared on Opera Britannia. 

This entry was posted in Opera and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.